In March of 1980, a hate-filled, half-crazy man armed with a gun he got legally walked into my father's office and shot him to death. Over the last 30 plus years I've had lots of time to think about hate speech, about the legal definition of insanity, and about how easy it is to get guns in our country.
As many have pointed out, hate speech doesn't pull triggers, but is particularly dangerous when consumed by unbalanced people. In my father's case, it was, I believe, left-wing hate speech that helped kill him: his murderer, a veteran of the civil rights movement, had taken in a lot of vitriol about my father over the years--that he was a sell-out, a CIA agent, the devil; that he, like other Jewish people who worked on the civil rights movement, was just trying to control it. This kind of talk came from far-lefties, and came out in the murderer's description of why he did it: my father was wiretapping him through his teeth, controlling airplane crashes, was a Jew who wanted to control everything.
Did the people who said such things kill my father? No. But their language helped stir the mind of the person who did. And it seems possible, from here, that something similar happened in Tucson.
Which brings us to insanity. The man who killed my father was found to be not responsible because he was insane at the time of the killing. But, of course, it was more complicated than that: he may have been sick, but he was well enough to buy a gun where he knew he could (gun laws in New York, where the murder happened, wouldn't have allowed him to, since he'd been in a mental hospital a few years earlier), to track my father to our old house in Long Beach, NY, and, not finding him there, track him to his law office in New York. Putting aside for a moment what the legal definition of "insanity" is, the fact of the matter is that he suffered from mental illness and was still able to plan and carry out a murder. It sounds, again, similar to what happened in Tucson. A killer doesn't have to be either a political assassin with an ideological reason for murder or an unhinged lunatic--he can be both. The fact that he's motivated in part by hate speech doesn't make him any less crazy, and the fact that he's mentally ill doesn't lessen the role of hate speech in psyching him up to take up arms.
Which brings us to gun laws. How on earth is a person as unhinged as the Tucson shooter able to legally get a semi-automatic with a 31-shot magazine? The argument that it doesn't matter if it were legal or not, a person like him would've gotten the weapon anyway, makes no sense: many laws are broken every day, but we still have them. Just because teenagers drink doesn't mean we should make the drinking age 15. Just because we have 20,000 homicides a year in this country doesn't mean we should give up on laws against murder.
The reason a mentally ill person could get such a weapon legally is that our country is currently overwhelmed by 2nd Amendment fanatics. These are the people who take any restriction on any right to own any arms as an attack on their liberty. People who love the First Amendment agree that it doesn't mean you should be able to yell "FIRE" in a crowded theater or open a porn shop next to a school. But Second Amendment absolutists allow for no such reasonable limits on guns--never mind that the people who wrote the Second Amendment had single-shot muskets in mind. Personally, I believe the Second Amendment was written to ensure the existence of militias; I disagree with the Supreme Court's recent ruling that it protects gun ownership by individuals. But even if those who view the Second Amendment as I do are wrong, why won't those who believe in an absolute right to own guns agree to any reasonable limits? These Second Amendment absolutists, in their refusal to concede to modern realities and compromise on reasonable limits to the right to bear arms, keep laws in place that make it easier for unbalanced people to get weapons, and get weapons that can kill lots of people.
In fact, watching the news coverage this weekend and thinking back to the news coverage of my father's death in 1980, what strikes me the most is how run of the mill such shootings by unbalanced people have become. Mass shootings are now just facts of life, and before the dead are buried the Second Amendment fanatics rush out to protect their gun rights. They win the argument before it starts, ensuring that, the next time, a mentally ill person, his brain swimming in hate speech, can carry a concealed semi-automatic legally, walk right up to his target, and get off 30 rounds in a minute.
Any attempt to point this out is dismissed as "finger-pointing" or "politicking," but it shouldn't be. We shouldn't talk about taking people out or watering the tree of liberty with blood unless we're comfortable with people listening actually doing it. And we should make it as difficult as possible for insane people to get guns.
None of this matters much now to the families of those killed and injured. My heart goes out to them. It is unspeakably awful to think of someone you love being killed like this, and they have a hard road in front of them, pot-holed with public bickering over what insanity is, what punishment is appropriate, and so on. All I can say to them is this: You can only begin to fill in the gap in your family by loving each other; nothing that happens to the killer, even if they execute him, is ever going to be enough to give you back what you've lost. So take care of yourselves and your families. Eat if you can, sleep when you can, pray if you can. Look out for each other.
Hopefully, the rest of us can do a better job of looking out for each other, too.
Thomas Lowenstein is Policy Director at Innocence Project New Orleans and author of the novel, The Ghost Detective.